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Lightfoot: No back channel search for permanent police superintendent

The mayor says the process “only has legitimacy if you follow it,” and she will choose from among the Chicago Police Board’s three finalists.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Friday she will not conduct a back-channel search for a permanent replacement for retiring police Supt. Eddie Johnson and will choose the new top cop from the three finalists chosen by the Chicago Police Board.

Lightfoot said she is “open to any possibility” — be it an insider or an outsider. She noted both have advantages — and she will be criticized no matter which way she goes.

“I never want to be in a position where we say to the great men and women of the department that, ‘One of your own isn’t good enough.’ But for me, I’m gonna pick the best person. I’m gonna get three options. I’m gonna put them through my own process of interviewing. And I want to make sure I pick the right leader to lead us into the future,” the mayor told the Sun-Times.

“If I’m blessed to get a second term, this is gonna be somebody who is gonna be the bridge between where we are now and where we’re gonna be in the future. ... The mayor needs to have somebody who is a close confidante and partner because policing affects ... whether or not the city is viewed as a safe place. ... The superintendent has a huge role about whether or not that narrative is good or whether that narrative is negative.”

Over the years, the police board process has been the equivalent of a political sham. Nationwide searches were conducted while the mayor conducted his or her own search. The mayor’s pick would be communicated to the board and magically appear on the list of three finalists.

The only time in recent Chicago history that script was not followed was four years ago when then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel rejected the three finalists chosen by a police board led by Lori Lightfoot and picked Johnson, who hadn’t applied.

This time will be different, Lightfoot said, laughing out loud when asked whether she would conduct a back-channel search. It’s not necessary, she said.

“Ghian Foreman, the president of the police board, served as my vice president. ... He’s a friend, a confidante. He understands what I’m looking for. ... I’m not gonna steer the search. The search has to be independent. But my views of what is necessary are very well known to him and other members of the police board,” the mayor said.

“The process only has legitimacy if you follow it. ... I’m gonna make my decision based upon the options that are presented to me by the police board. I’m open to any possibility.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot sits down for a conversation with the Chicago Sun-Times at the Union League Club of Chicago, Friday afternoon, Nov. 8, 2019.
Mayor Lori Lightfoot sits down for a conversation with the Chicago Sun-Times at the Union League Club of Chicago, Friday afternoon, Nov. 8, 2019.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

The mayor reiterated her long-stated view that there are fewer than 10 people in the country with the combination of law enforcement experience, crime-fighting expertise and leadership skills to make them capable of doing the $260,044-a-year job.

She is mindful of the fact the Chicago Police Department has never had a woman as superintendent and “under the right circumstances” she would love to break that gender barrier.

The mayor said she expects one of the high-ranking female deputies from within CPD to make the list of three finalists. Lightfoot wouldn’t name names. But chances are, she was referring to Barbara West, with whom Lightfoot met privately at City Hall earlier this week.

Lightfoot spoke highly of Houston Police Chief Art Acevedo, who is well regarded as among the new generation of police leaders. But she said the mayor of Houston would “probably come at me with a pickax” if she dared to steal him away.

Pressed to describe the ideal superintendent, Lightfoot said it’s someone with experience running a “big and complicated” police organization who can “motivate the troops” and understands the value of constitutional policing.”

She also described the need for a “bridge builder” who understands the need to build “strong and deep ties to the community” and the “opportunities” for change created by a federal consent decree.

The mayor was asked whether the new superintendent must be African American.

“You know that I hate the racial and tribal politics of the city. It is a reality. But I’m gonna pick the best person, whoever that person is,” she said.

Lightfoot said no matter whom she chooses, there will be critics. It comes with the territory.

“I’m 57 years old. I have a pretty good sense of my values, what my North Star is. I’m thoughtful in my approach. I’ll be thoughtful in my approach here. And I’m gonna pick the person who I believe is truly the best person for the foreseeable future of this department.”